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After spinal stroke, Iraq vet works to keep loose and limber

TWIN FALLS, Idaho — Turns out, coming home was the easy part.

It was November 2005, and Twin Falls resident Robert Ramos had been on the battlefields of Iraq for 10 months. Now he and his Army National Guard 116th Brigade Combat Team were back home, and the thrill of survival permeated the air like confetti.

Tears, hugs, kisses, relief and joy — those were the fruits of Ramos’ return from a strange, hostile land.

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And the injuries? The Humvee accident months before that caused a seemingly mild concussion, severe whiplash and neck and shoulder pain?

Ancient history.

“All of that resolved after about two to three weeks,” Ramos recalled Wednesday from the specially equipped Twin Falls home he shares with his parents. “I came home walking with no severe injuries, and didn’t think I had to be checked out because there were no signs anything was wrong.”

In April 2006, Ramos, his parents and all who loved him learned otherwise.

A spinal cord infarction — sometime called a spinal stroke — suddenly struck the then 21-year-old, disrupting his body’s electrical impulses and dramatically and forever altering the future Ramos had envisioned.

Much to mother Barbara Ramos’ astonishment and grief, the end of her son’s military ordeal had suddenly become the beginning of something much worse. Her life, like her son’s, had turned from exquisite joy to profound anguish. Her once physically active son was now paralyzed and wheelchair bound.

“When Robert got off the bus, and we got him back, I just remember having the most intense feeling I had ever had in my life,” Barbara said. “He was alive and well, and I remember thinking that it was all over and the world was perfect. But sometimes coming home is just the beginning of the ordeal.”

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs concluded the Humvee accident and concussion may have produced a blood clot that caused Ramos’ stroke. He spent the next five months in the hospital recuperating then rehabilitating his damaged body. In January 2007, Ramos’ military career ended when he received his honorable disabled discharge from the National Guard. He had planned to continue his military service for at least five years.

“I liked serving the country and Idaho, and I enjoyed hanging out with my brothers (other service members),” he said. “You get to know them sometimes better than your own family.”

But now he was about to form another family of sorts — the physical therapists who would work to keep his body functioning.

Ramos began physical therapy in October 2006, about a month after he was discharged from the hospital. At that time, a therapist from Rupert worked on Ramos at home but eventually had to discontinue the treatment after accepting another position that wouldn’t allow her to travel.

So in 2009, Ramos began treatment at Wright Physical Therapy in Twin Falls. He currently undergoes 45-minute maintenance therapy sessions twice a week, once at the clinic for his neck and once at home for his legs.

The goals are maintaining mobility and range of motion, said Wright physical therapist Tyler Billings.

“We work on the upper back and the individual joints in the neck,” said Billings, 30. “We keep him loose and try to decrease any pain he might be having. The end goal is to improve overall function.”

Ramos particularly notices when his head leans to the right, so some therapy focuses on strengthening muscles on the left side of his neck to offset the tilt. Additional therapy using traction, heat and electrical stimulation helps keep his fingers and toes limber so they don’t spasmodically curl.

“It’s actually really effective,” Ramos said. “The doctor said if I don’t keep up my range of motion, my muscles will start contracting and curling in on the body, and it can become extremely painful.”

According to Billings, Ramos is living up to his part of the bargain by consistently attending therapy sessions.

“We have really seen a difference in the past six months on how he is maintaining,” the physical therapist said. “It really helps getting blood to his areas of discomfort.”

The therapy helps Ramos in other ways, too, Billings said — namely by allowing him to discuss one of his favorite topics.

“We talk about all kinds of sports for about 44 out of the 45 minutes we’re together,” Billings said, grinning. “He just loves sports.”

And though the activities aren’t considered traditional physical therapy, Ramos gets out and about in other ways these days to limber mind and body. Thanks to his dad’s ingenuity, Ramos can now accompany him in an all-terrain vehicle equipped with a modified passenger seat.

“We go out and ride around the trails and go up into the desert and South Hills,” Ramos said.

Those adventures may segue from time to time into another of the former soldier’s pursuits — target shooting. Ramos recently began using a shooting frame that allows him to steady a pistol, rifle or shotgun and pull the trigger with his mouth. When the weather warms, he plans to be out using it.

The former National Guardsman knows better than anyone, though, that his body must cooperate for him to enjoy any strenuous activities. And that means physical therapy for the rest of his life.

“Unfortunately, that’s the price for staying healthy,” he said. “If I didn’t, I’d be in a lot more pain.”

And he’d disappoint a lot of folks at Wright.

“Everyone loves Robert here,” Billings said. “He’s our superhero.”
 

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